Heroine, Villainess, Or Just A Person?

Elizabeth “Sisi” of Austria, wife (and first cousin) of Franz Josef, mother of Rudolph, most beautiful woman in Europe, and, well… People either love and romanticize her, or dislike her with varying intensity.

I was reminded of her while reading through Monalisa Foster’s blog:

https://monalisafoster.com/2019/01/28/story-and-characters-love-hate-affairs-across-cultures/

The more I learn about her, the less I care for her and the more sympathy I have for Franz Josef. Which makes me a little odd, at least judging by the goodies in the shops in Vienna.

Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary. Used under Creative Commons 2.0.

She was the younger daughter of the Wittelsbach family. Her aunt had married the Austrian emperor, and so Franz-Josef was her first cousin. He came to Bavaria to meet Elizabeth’s sister, the older daughter. Elizabeth enjoyed riding, hunting, and being the spare. But Franz Josef fell in love with “Sisi,” and they married. She was completely unprepared for the formalities and complexity of the Austrian court, and for her aunt/mother-in-law.

Sisi developed what today we’d call a form of anorexia. Unusually tall for her time, she stood five foot, eight inches, and weighed only 110 lbs. No, that is not a good weight for her height, but it allowed her to keep her ultra-tiny waist (16 inches at the smallest, 18 and a half on average). She’d walk for eight hours a day, exercise, ride, and fixated on her appearance and her tiny waist. Later, she showed signs that today we’d call depression, as did her only son, Rudolph. Rudolph would eventually kill himself and his mistress, leaving Sisi distraught. She sought to escape through travel, especially as she grew older and lost her status as the most beautiful woman in Europe.

Not ugly, just no longer 18. Painting currently in the Wine Cellar treasury in Vienna. Used under Creative Commons 2.o. Click for source.

In 1898 an anarchist assassinated her by stabbing her. She was in Geneva, Switzerland, and did not have any guards or security. Because she was so tightly corseted, people did not realize how serious her injury was. Franz-Josef was devastated. He loved her dearly, even though she did not seem to return his love.

Over the past 30 years she has become a figure of legend and a heroine of sorts. A museum dedicated to her attracts large crowds in Vienna. Franz-Josef is the villain, if there is one, and she is the loving, beautiful, haunted and misunderstood figure. Several movies have been made about her, and novels, and you can buy replicas of some of her jewelry. (I have one of the replicas and wear it on occasion.)

To me, Franz-Josef is more the figure of sympathy. He should not have married into the Wittelsbachs – the genetics were too close, as we now know. The Habsburgs and Wittelsbachs had been in-crossing for at least 400 years, and the mental illness introduced by Juana “La Loca” had been apparent from the late 1500s on. However, they didn’t understand genetics the way we do, and the Wittelsbach sisters were excellent dynastic options, even if they were Franz-Josef’s first cousins. He loved her in his clumsy way.

The hagiographic treatment of Sisi seems to me to be excessive. She was a sad woman who had mental problems exacerbated by a most unpleasant mother-in-law. But Sisi this and Sisi that grates. Perhaps because I don’t live in her society, perhaps because I admire Franz-Josef for his sense of duty even as the world sped into a new century that he barely recognized, I pity her but I don’t admire her.

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12 thoughts on “Heroine, Villainess, Or Just A Person?

  1. Off topic, but perhaps related to the Subject Title.

    I wonder how many authors “signal” the unknown bad guy by having that person being to only obnoxious individual in the “cast of characters”.

  2. First cousins meant getting dispensation to marry. It’s always risky. However, the description makes them sound more like quarter- to half- brother and sister. If the families had in-crossed that long, both family heads should have seen this coming, and for dynastic purposes found an acceptable, healthy fourth cousin in a minor noble house.

    Mental instability in the Catholic lines was matched by emerging hemophilia and madness in the Protestant lines. Dynastic marriage for inheritance brought both sets some very unwelcome genetic surprises.

    Now I want to look up the Hapsburg and Wittelsbach families. Blast it, can’t read a good fantasy series without wanting to do historical research again. Naughty kitty!

  3. I agree with you. “Sisi” was selfish and self-serving. There was a lot about her that was TSTL (at least in the play). And the part about pitying her instead of admiring her is right on. As the popularity of the play attests, as long as we have some emotional reaction, whether it’s pity or admiration, that’s what it’s all about. Indifference to a character is the thing all writers should fear, not that their characters aren’t perfect.

    • She IS fascinating, no matter what you think of her, and she makes an excellent character study in complexity. I’ve got characters I never really liked but could sort of admire (Matthew Charles Malatesta in _Blackbird_ for one.) I’d really have trouble writing – as well as reading – a dull, bland character that doesn’t inspire some reaction of some sort.

      • Which is still my favorite of any of your books, although he also isn’t one of my most liked characters. Your description is spot on, admirable but I didn’t really LIKE him.

  4. Interesting. I had not been familiar with her and am not very familiar with Franz Joseph. You have this knack for showing me subjects I need to research more.

  5. Only a misogynist would treat even a deeply flawed female historical figure in anything but a hagiographic matter. 🙂

  6. Your post reminded me of the long, rich tradition of conspiracy theories about Mayerling. It’s almost a pity that the letters from Rudolf’s mistress were finally published and seem to have settled the matter; so many people had so much fun spinning their theories.

  7. Strange response to her, considering what is known today. And almost a doomed relationship from the start. Family dynamics definitely played a BIG part.

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